Counting the omer in hope towards an unknown future: Shavuot in a time of pandemic

L’italiano segue l’inglese

As we count each evening from Pesach to Shavuot – forty-nine days or a week of weeks (hence the name Shavuot or Weeks) – we say a blessing with the ending “Who has commanded us concerning counting the Omer”.

Counting the Omer comes from the biblical narrative which tells us (Leviticus 23:10-16)

 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you and you reap its harvest, bring to the priest a sheaf (omer) of the first grain you harvest.  He will wave the sheaf (omer) before God so it will be accepted on your behalf; the priest is to wave it on the day after the Sabbath. On the day you wave the sheaf, you must sacrifice as a burnt offering to God a year old lamb without defect, together with its grain offering of two-tenths of an ephah of the finest flour mixed with olive oil—a food offering presented to the Eternal a pleasing aroma—and its drink offering of a quarter of a hin of wine. You must not eat any bread, or roasted or new grain, until the very day you bring this offering to your God. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks.  Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath and then present an offering of new grain to the Eternal”.

From the barley harvest of Pesach to the wheat harvest of Shavuot we count the days. Biblical Jews were profoundly aware of the importance of these harvests – and the third harvest of the year at Sukkot, when the newly ripened first fruits would also be brought to the Temple. Regular rainfall could not be relied on, nor was there a large river to provide the necessary irrigation – the whole agricultural endeavour was fragile and everyone knew it. So the counting of the days as the barley harvest began at Pesach until the wheat was ready at Shavuot marked a time of both anxiety and hope. The formula – this is day X of the Omer, which is Y weeks and Z days of the Omer – focuses us each night on exactly where we are in the cycle – will the barley harvest be successfully concluded? Will the wheat be ripe and ready?

That period of anxiety and hope resonated profoundly for the rabbis who rebuilt and reoriented Judaism after the destruction of the Temple and our exile from the Land of Israel. The agricultural focus fell away and in its place we remembered the journey out of Egypt to Sinai – from our liberation from slavery to reaching a milestone towards redemption with the Covenant with God; from being frightened individuals chased out of a foreign land to becoming a people who would return to their own ancestral Land.

We are once again in a period of anxiety and hope. Our normal life and routines have largely vanished:  the ability to meet friends and hug them, to pop out to the shops without fear of terrible consequences, to get on a bus or a train or go to a cinema or restaurant – suddenly all these are freighted with danger. Many of us know of people who have become seriously ill, or who moved from enjoying their life to their life ending in a matter of a few short weeks. The anxiety seems endless – and yet there is also hope. We have found the hope, as did our ancestors, both in marking the passage of time as we watch the Spring arrive with its blossom and its greenery, and in growing sense of community as we begin to understand how connected we are to each other, and as we forge ever closer relationships with each other – albeit with appropriate social distancing.

Shavuot does not mark the end of anything –either agriculturally or theologically. It marks the beginning of the second major harvest of the year, or the giving and receiving of the Torah – something that can never be a single event but is in fact a process that continually unfolds. As Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said, “The Giving of the Torah took place in the month of Sivan, but the receiving of the Torah takes place every day.”

Maybe it is because it does not mark a clear and decisive event that Shavuot is often described as a “Cinderella festival”, one that it is hard to be enthusiastic about – apart from the cheesecakes and other delicacies. But in reality Shavuot is one of the major festivals of Judaism. Along with Pesach and Sukkot it was one of the three times Jews were meant to visit the Temple in Jerusalem in order to thank God for the foods that would sustain life. In its rabbinic guise it is the moment when the Israelites became a people; the moment when, meeting God, we accepted the Covenant for all time and all generations, we agreed to be God’s people and do God’s will. Shavuot celebrates and rehearses the foundational moment of Judaism – tradition tells us we were all at Sinai, all part of the Covenant acceptance.

This year we will not be able to meet in the synagogue and re-enact Sinai. There will be no greenery decorating the bimah and Ark to remind us that Sinai was filled with flowers when God and the people promised their faithfulness to each other. The drama of the liturgy will feel a little less so when mediated through our internet providers. But the message of Shavuot – of the recognition of the fragility of life, of the existential anxiety of human beings, of the fact we are all journeying together through difficult land towards a hoped for but unclear future – that message will be clearer than ever this year.

So let’s celebrate the Spring time, bless the fact that we reach another day, be grateful for the community in which we live and with whom we share this journey. And remember the leap of faith of both God and the Jewish people to stick with each other and travel into a hopeful future.

Contare l’Omer nella speranza verso un futuro sconosciuto: Shavuot in tempo di pandemia

Mentre contiamo ogni sera da Pesach a Shavuot, quarantanove giorni ovvero una settimana di settimane (da cui il nome Shavuot o Settimane), diciamo una benedizione con il finale “Che ci ha comandato riguardo al conteggio dell’Omer”.

Contare l’Omer deriva dalla narrazione biblica che, in Levitico 23: 10-16, ci dice:

“Parla ai figli di Israele e di’ loro:” Quando sarete entrati nel paese che sto per darvi e ne mieterete i prodotti del campo, dovrete portare al sacerdote, il manipolo che avrete mietuto per primo; questi agiterà il manipolo davanti all’Signore affinché vi renda graditi; nel giorno successivo e in quello di astensione dal lavoro lo agiterà il sacerdote. In un giorno in cui agiterete il manipolo offrirete un agnello senza difetti di un anno come olocausto in onore del Signore; e la sua offerta farinacea sarà costituita da due decime di Efà di fior di farina intrisa nell’olio come sacrificio da ardersi con il fuoco in onore del Signore affinché costituisca profumo gradito, e la sua libazione sarà costituita di vino, nella misura di un quarto di Hin. Non mangerete né pane né grano abbrustolito, né grano fresco del nuovo prodotto fino a quel giorno, fino a che cioè non avrete presentato il sacrifico destinato al vostro Dio; questa è la legge per tutti i tempi, per le vostre generazioni in tutte le vostre sedi. E conterete, a cominciare dal giorno successivo a quello di astensione dal lavoro, dal giorno cioè in cui porterete il manipolo che deve essere agitato, sette settimane, che siano complete: fino al giorno successivo alla settima settimana conterete cinquanta giorni, e presenterete un’offerta farinacea di nuovi prodotti in onore del Signore.”.

Dal raccolto dell’orzo di Pesach al raccolto del grano di Shavuot contiamo i giorni. Gli ebrei biblici erano profondamente consapevoli dell’importanza di questi raccolti, così come del terzo raccolto annuale a Sukkot, quando anche i primi frutti appena maturati sarebbero stati portati al Tempio. Non si poteva fare affidamento su piogge regolari, né c’era un grande fiume per fornire l’irrigazione necessaria: l’intero sforzo agricolo era fragile e tutti lo sapevano. Quindi, il conteggio dei giorni da quando iniziava la raccolta dell’orzo a Pesach fino a quando il grano non era pronto a Shavuot segnava un momento di ansia e speranza. La formula “questo è il giorno X dell’Omer, ovvero Y settimane e Z giorni dell’Omer” ci focalizza ogni notte esattamente sul punto a cui siamo nel ciclo: la raccolta dell’orzo sarà conclusa con successo? Il grano sarà maturo e pronto?

Quel periodo di ansia e speranza risuonò profondamente per i rabbini che ricostruirono e riorientarono l’ebraismo dopo la distruzione del Tempio e il nostro esilio dalla Terra di Israele. L’attenzione all’agricoltura è svanita e al suo posto abbiamo ricordato il viaggio dall’Egitto al Sinai: dalla nostra liberazione dalla schiavitù al raggiungimento di una pietra miliare verso la redenzione con l’Alleanza con Dio; dall’essere spaventati individui cacciati da una terra straniera al diventare un popolo che sarebbe tornato alla propria Terra ancestrale.

Siamo di nuovo in un periodo di ansia e speranza. La nostra vita normale e la routine sono in gran parte svanite: la possibilità di incontrare amici e abbracciarli, di andare nei negozi senza timore di conseguenze terribili, di salire su un autobus o in treno o di andare al cinema o al ristorante: improvvisamente tutto ciò è carico di pericolo. Molti di noi conoscono persone che si sono ammalate gravemente o che sono passate dal godersi la vita al finire la loro vita nel giro di poche settimane. L’ansia sembra infinita, eppure c’è anche speranza. Abbiamo trovato la speranza, così come i nostri antenati, sia nel segnare il passare del tempo mentre guardiamo arrivare la Primavera con i suoi fiori e il suo verde, sia nel crescente senso di comunità di quando iniziamo a capire quanto siamo collegati gli uni agli altri, e quando instauriamo relazioni sempre più strette l’uno con l’altro, anche se con un adeguato distanziamento sociale.

Shavuot non segna la fine di nulla, né in ambito agricolo né teologico. Segna l’inizio del secondo grande raccolto dell’anno, ovvero il dare e ricevere della Torà: qualcosa che non può mai essere un singolo evento ma è in realtà un processo che si svolge continuamente. Come diceva Menachem Mendel di Kotzk: “Il Dare della Torà ha avuto luogo nel mese di Sivan, ma il ricevimento della Torah ha luogo ogni giorno”.

Forse è perché non segna un evento chiaro e decisivo che Shavuot è spesso descritta come una “festività Cenerentola” di cui è difficile essere entusiasti, a parte le cheesecake e altre prelibatezze. In realtà Shavuot è una delle maggiori festività dell’ebraismo. Insieme a Pesach e Sukkot era una delle tre volte in cui gli ebrei erano richiesto di visitare il Tempio di Gerusalemme per ringraziare Dio per i cibi che avrebbero sostenuto la vita. Nella sua forma rabbinica è il momento in cui gli israeliti sono diventati un popolo; il momento in cui, incontrando Dio, abbiamo accettato l’Alleanza per sempre e per tutte le generazioni, abbiamo deciso di essere il popolo di Dio e fare la volontà di Dio. Shavuot celebra e prova il momento fondamentale dell’ebraismo: la tradizione ci dice che eravamo tutti nel Sinai, tutti parte dell’accettazione del Patto.

Quest’anno non potremo incontrarci nella sinagoga e rievocare il Sinai. Lì non ci saranno addobbi floreali per la bimà e l’Arca, a ricordarci che il Sinai era pieno di fiori quando Dio e il popolo si promisero l’un l’altro. Il dramma della liturgia si sentirà un po’ meno, mediato attraverso i nostri fornitori di servizi Internet. Ma il messaggio di Shavuot, del riconoscimento della fragilità della vita, dell’ansia esistenziale degli esseri umani, del fatto che stiamo tutti viaggiando insieme attraverso la terra difficile verso un futuro sperato ma poco chiaro, quel messaggio quest’anno sarà più chiaro che mai.

Quindi celebriamo il periodo primaverile, benediciamo il fatto di raggiungere un altro giorno, ringraziamo la comunità in cui viviamo e con cui condividiamo questo viaggio. E ricordiamo il salto di fede sia di Dio che del popolo ebraico per restare fedeli e viaggiare in un futuro pieno di speranza.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

Pesach and the Seder Plate: the lesson of hope

The festival of Pesach has an extraordinary amount of symbolic and/or coded practises.  The items on the seder plate – the burned egg (beitza) for the additional festival sacrifice of thanksgiving (chagigah) brought during the three pilgrim festival, is also a symbol of fertility and of life.  Hard boiled and touched by flame it has no “speaking” role in the service, but reminds us of both hardship and survival. The charoset, a mixture of wine nuts and fruit, is generally said to symbolise the mortar used by the Hebrew slaves in their building work (its name, first found in Mishna Pesachim 20:3 shows it to have become part of the seder ritual, though there is debate as to whether the charoset is mandatory.) Eaten first with the matza and then with the bitter herbs before the meal, it embodies a confusion of meanings – if it has apples as in the Ashkenazi tradition, it is to remind us of the apple trees under which, according to midrash, the Israelite women seduced their husbands in order to become pregnant – their husbands not apparently wanting to bring a new generation into the world of slavery. If it has dates and figs, as in the Sephardi tradition, it is to remind us of the Song of Songs, read on Pesach, an erotic work which supposedly alludes to the love between God and Israel, as well, of course, as being rich in the symbolism of fertility. The wine-dark colour is supposed to remind us of the blood placed on the doorposts of the houses to stop the Angel of Death from entering, and the blood into which Joseph’s torn coat was dipped to show his father that he had most likely been savaged by a wild animal – the moment from which the Pesach narrative is born.

The zeroa, the shank bone of a lamb, is a reminder both of the lamb roasted on the night of the exodus (exodus 12:8-9) and of the korban pesach, the lamb brought as paschal sacrifice when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. Along with the egg it forms the “two cooked dishes” required by the Mishnah, and the “pesach” together with the matza and the bitter herb (maror), is one of the three objects we are required to discuss in order to fulfil the obligation of the Seder according to Rabban Gamliel. While the zeroa represents the paschal sacrifice, in fact there are a variety of traditions as to what can go on the plate – as it means an arm or a shoulder – so chicken wings can be used, or – should one go further into the etymology where it is used to mean “to spread out” – chicken necks and in fact any meat – even without a bone – can be used (Mishnah Berurah). But for vegetarians there are other possibilities. A beet is an acceptable symbol for the zeroa according to Rav Huna (Pesachim 114b) and it does “bleed” onto the plate in meaty fashion. Vegetarian punsters in the English language are fond of using a “paschal yam”. And for the greatly squeamish a model bone – be it fashioned from craft putty or from paper – can stand in symbolically.

The zeroa also represents the “outstretched arm” with which the bible tells us God first promised redemption from slavery (Ex.6:6) and then took us out of Egypt (Deut 26:8). It resonates and possibly also references Moses’ outstretched arm over the sea of reeds which caused the waters to part and then to return, although a different verb us used here (Exodus 14)

The maror – the bitter herb – is actually only one of two bitter herbs on most plates, the other being the hazeret. Hazeret was usually the bitter leaves of romaine lettuce, and the maror is generally represented by grated horseradish root. However the Mishnah (Pesachim 2:6) gives us five different vegetables that could be used: as well as hazeret and maror there is olshin, tamcha, and char’chavina. Such a lot of bitterness we can sample! According to Talmud, it is the hazeret rather than the maror which is preferred, though somehow we have reversed the order, and often the hazeret remains on the plate to puzzle the seder participants as to its purpose. Some mix the two for each time we eat the bitter herbs, some use one for the maror and the other for the Hillel Sandwich, some leave the hazeret untouched….. The bitter taste is in memory of the bitterness of the slavery – and yet we mix it with the sweet charoset, or eat it with the matza

And then there is the Karpas. Often described as the hors d’oeuvres to turn a meal into a banquet (with the afikomen functioning as dessert), it is eaten dipped into the salt water early in the seder ritual. The word Karpas is not used in the Talmud, which mentions only yerakot – (green) vegetables. Indeed the word only appears in bible once –in the book of Esther – where it means fine linen cloth. It has, one assumes, come into the haggadah through the Greek “karpos” – a raw vegetable – but its connection to the fine linen and its place at the beginning of the seder makes it possible to see it as referencing the coat of Joseph dipped in blood by his brothers – the beginning of the connection with Egypt which will lead us eventually to the exodus and the seder.

The word and the food is open to much speculation. One drash I like plays on each letter of the word: When we look at the four letters of this word kaf, reish, peh and samech, we discover an encoded message of four words which teaches a basic lesson about how to develop our capacity for giving.

The first letter “chaf” means the palm of the hand. The second letter “reish” denotes a person bent down in poverty. When taken together these two letter/words speak of a benevolent hand opened for the needy.

But what if you are a person of limited means, with precious little to give? Look at the second half of the word Karpas. The letter “peh” means mouth, while the final letter “samech” means to support. True, you may not be capable of giving in the material sense, but you can always give support with your words.

Seen in this way, the Karpas is a reminder not just of the springtime with its fresh green leaves, but of our ability to show compassion for others and to support them whatever our circumstances. We dip the Karpas into salt water – which represents the tears shed by the slaves as they worked, and also maybe the water of the Reed Sea which presented a terrible obstacle to the fleeing slaves as the army of Pharaoh charged behind them to recapture them – so the ritual of dipping the Karpas reminds us that however much grief today brings, however painful our circumstances and great our fear of what is happening to us, the ability to empathise and to support others is the quality that will help us in our daily living.

The Karpas is for me the Pesach symbol par excellence, because it combines most powerfully both distress and hope. As a token of the new green of springtime, the bright taste of the parsley awakens a delicious sense of fresh hopefulness. Dipped into the salt water, that hopefulness is immersed in grief – and yet its taste still comes through. While each of the Seder plate symbols – along with the matza which is both the bread of affliction and the bread of liberation – is a potent combination of both pain and joy, the Karpas is the clearest encapsulation of this lesson. Coming right at the beginning of the Seder, it is a harbinger of the Pesach story and reminds us that hope survives through tears and through difficult times.  And hope is the prerequisite for survival.

My teacher Rabbi Hugo Gryn wrote that his father taught him that one can survive without food for three weeks and with no water for three days, but one cannot survive without hope for even three minutes.  The Pesach Seder begins with the encoded lesson – hope survives. We can tell the story of the slavery, of the plagues, of the fearful night of the angel of death, of the darkness and uncertainty, of the panicked leaving without knowing the destination and the crossing of the sea while pursued by the horses and chariots of the vengeful army. We can tell the story of the failed rebellion against Rome and the many oppressions over the generations. We can tell the story and taste the bitterness without fear or distress because the first thing we do after blessing the wine and washing our hands is to dip a fresh vegetable into salt water, bless the creator of the fruit from the ground, and taste the hope even through its coating of misery and grief.

This year has been a Seder like no other for most of us. Alone or separated from loved ones in lockdown, unable to source some of the usual Pesach foodstuffs or anxious about supplies, the story of the plagues has been thrown into sharp relief, no longer in the realm of fairy-tale but bluntly and frighteningly here. We cannot know yet how this story will end. Whether our masks and sheltering in place will keep us safe; whether we or our loved ones will hear the swoop of the wings of the Angel of Death. Everything is up-ended, but the message of the Seder supports us. Amidst fear and distress, through grief and terror, we hold on to hope. Hope is the beginning of our journey and it is our companion through life. The Hebrew word “tikvah” – hope – comes from the word for a cord or a rope. Threaded through the Seder, threaded through the generations who come to the Seder, binding us together through time and space, hope is what holds us in life and to life.

While the Haggadah is often described as the story from slavery to redemption, it is far more importantly the book that imbues us with hope – however long the redemption will take. And it ends with the hope “Next year in Jerusalem” – not necessarily a literal expectation, but a hope for new horizons, new possibilities, a hope for a better world.

 

Chol haMoed Pesach: the love affair begins – the view from the harem

During Chol HaMoed Pesach it is traditional to read Shir HaShirim (Shir haShirim), one of the five ‘megillot’ read in synagogues over the year.  Esther is read at Purim for obvious reasons, Ruth at Shavuot, Eicha (Lamentations) at Tisha b’Av, and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) at Succot.

While the Midrash Rabbah groups these books together (along with the Five Books of Moses), they were not written at the same time or indeed in the same way, and date from between the 5th and the 12th centuries as far as we can tell.  Purim is predicated on the Book of Esther, Tisha b’Av is clearly connected to Eicha, but the three pilgrimage festivals having their own Megillah is rather more complicated and the links between them somewhat fragile.

So why is Song of Songs read during the festival that commemorates the exodus from Egypt?

It is, quite plainly, a book of love poetry. It describes the story of a Shulamite woman who is passionately in love with a shepherd but is separated from him, having been taken into King Solomon’s harem. In an erotically charged and physically explicit series of poems she remembers the relationship she yearns for, the imagery is bucolic and sensual, using imagery of the field and the vineyards, painting a picture of intense love between two people. In a dialogue structure we hear the voice of the lover describing her and their encounters, lingering on her face, her body, her breasts and thighs and neck, her face, her smell. A third voice, that of narrator or chorus, also appears in the structure and the protagonist occasionally turns to speak to or to give advice to the daughters of Jerusalem.

The book begins with a superscription informing us that this is “Song of Songs which is Solomon’s” and so it is traditionally ascribed to King Solomon, a factor which was critical into its acceptance into the biblical canon. But this authorship is unlikely in the extreme. The language shows it to be much later than the Solomonic period – probably 3rd to 1st Century BCE; It has parallels with other love poetry of the region and with Greek poetry and it fits into the genre of women’s poetry for the harem.

Yet it was taken into the biblical canon and treated by the rabbis as an allegory of the love story between Israel and God, with Israel taking the role of the female protagonist and King Solomon standing for God. The book was clearly controversial and only the powerful and passionate defence by Rabbi Akiva in the first century ended the argument. Famously he said” Heaven forbid that anyone in Israel would ever dispute the sacredness of Shir HaShirim for the whole world is not worth the day on which Shir Hashirim was given to Israel;  all of the Writings are kodesh (“holy”) but Shir Hashirim is kodesh kodashim (“holy of holies”).

Quite why he defends it so robustly, or why he plays on the name with the idea of holiness (kodesh kodashim) is left in history, but it has the effect of reframing how we read this book so fully that the voice of the woman is all but muted, the physicality and comfort with her emotions and desires are practically erased, and the book is taken into the men’s domain of ‘holiness’ and of the patriarchal God, and the religiousness of the woman and of women in general is diminished to the point of invisibility.

This is a book that speaks of the power of love through the voice of a woman. It bespeaks young and untested love, the intense first love that nothing ever quite matches again.  One can see why it fits Pesach which happens in the springtime when all the animals and birds are coming out of a long winter and going through their mating rituals prior to settling down. One can see how it fits into the first love of the Exodus from Egypt, when the beloved can change the world for their lover, in this case quite literally. Nothing bad has happened yet, no quarrels, no golden calf, no element of falling short of the mark, the beloved can do no wrong and as yet is untainted by doubt.

Yet having been appropriated for the patriarchal view of covenantal religion it is easy to miss that this book is women’s religious literature, that Solomon is not the desired or the lover, but instead represents a disruption to the older, earlier love that is both more pastoral and more prosaic. Religion in the hands of men created a structure of ritual purity, a hierarchy and a priesthood who ministered in mysterious inner sanctums where no one could see or could enter. Religion in the hands of women was more nature based, more in tune with the rhythms of the body, focused on the creation of new life and the dwindling of energies as life diminishes. It is no accident that there were women in the liminal space at the doorway before the tent of meeting, performing their poetry and songs, welcoming the bringer of the sacrifice and facilitating their leaving the ritual. It is no accident that it is women who mark important events with song – there are more women’s songs in bible than men’s by far. Women from Deborah to Jephthah’s daughter, from Hannah to Miriam, sing across the boundaries of events.

I think that Rabbi Akiva was right when he says that this book is so holy, but probably not for the reasons he gives. It is holy because it records the religious expression of women, it is forthright and unashamed about the physical space that women take up, and while written from an inner world of the harem it reminds the reader that the author is well aware of the outer world and all its gifts. The voice of the woman is equal to that of the man in this book, it is ideal in that it takes us back to the first story of Creation and the simultaneous formation of men and women.  It can bespeak the love affair between God and Israel in the sense that a truly matched couple in love must not have a power dynamic where one is so much greater than the other – in this love affair God enters our world as lover not as sovereign. There is much eye contact and kissing in the poetry, it is a relationship where both participants give and receive equally.

I fear that the book which reflects the spirituality of women has been so reframed and reinterpreted that it is almost heretical to read it in what I believe was its original voice. It seems to be no coincidence that the mangled punning of Shmuel to alter the beautiful phrase from this book “…har’ini et mar’ayich, hashmini et kolech, ki kolech arev umarech naveh” – “show me your countenance, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet and your countenance is pleasant” is made to read instead “kol b’ishah ervah” the voice of a woman is nakedness/sexuality. (BT Berachot 24) and then offered as a proof that women’s voices should not be heard.

Did he choose the verse from the very book of women’s voices singing in public space to try to mute that very voice from discourse as a deliberate act in order to add insult to injury? To assert the patriarchal norms and taking up of all public space for masculine voices in order to silence any other way of worship?  Is this the first attempt in recorded history of mansplaining?

Whatever the process, for a long time the voice of women in religious worship and religious relationship has been quiet, a whisper, the voice of slender silence. Yet there are hints throughout our tradition that the voice is still speaking – the bat kol, literally the daughter of the voice, is a rabbinic term for communication from the divine.

The book ends with a plea for the voice to continue to be heard: “You who dwell n the gardens, the companions listen out for your voice: Cause me to hear it. Make haste my beloved” (8:13,14)

There is another reason that shir hashirim is read on Pesach, the great festival of our liberation, our freedom from oppression, the fulfilled desire of the Israelites to be able to worship their God in their own way – it is a reminder that the voices of women in Judaism are still struggling to be heard, still searching for a space in the discourse, still asserting viewpoints that are seen as less valid or less important or less authoritative. We have not yet achieved our liberation within the Jewish tradition. But our voices will continue to sing, to speak, to shape the world we see and to counter and add counterpoint to the other voices heard so loudly in our tradition.

 

 

 

Shabbat HaGadol:the day to remind ourselves (as we frantically focus down on Pesach preparations) that our world is larger and more complex than we might be tempted to think.

The shabbat before Pesach goes under the name of “Shabbat Hagadol”, the Great Sabbath. It follows a number of special shabbatot, each with its own name and purpose –Shekalim and Zachor, Parah and HaChodesh, each of which is designed liturgically to remind us of something particular, each of which has its own extra torah reading and Haftarah.

Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Sabbath, doesn’t quite fit into the pattern.  While it has its own Haftarah from which some say its name is derived  (it ends “hiney anochi sholeyach lachem et eliyah ha’navee, lifnei bo yom Adonai, hagadol v’ha’norah”  Behold I am sending to you Elijah the prophet before the arrival of the Day of the Eternal God, the great and the awesome day (Malachi 3:4-24,23”)  there is no way of knowing whether the name or the reading came first, and truthfully the connection is quite tenuous – to derive the name of the day from the penultimate word of the Haftarah seems unlikely.  So, it doesn’t have an extra Torah reading, and the Haftarah which contains both terrible warning of destruction as well as a prophecy of the redemption at the end of days, is an unlikely contender for the designation of the date.

So what makes this Shabbat Great? Shabbat Hagadol, the great Sabbath?

I’ve heard a number of explanations – always a sign that there can be no certainty – and they range from the quasi historical to the frankly unbelievable.

Traditional commentators explain that the 10th Nissan, the date when the Israelites were to take the lambs into their homes prior to slaughtering them on the 14th of that month, was a shabbat – hence we are remembering the anniversary of that brave act of identification made by the Hebrew slaves after the ninth plague had not yet effected their liberation.  It is a neat suggestion, backed up by some ingenious workings of biblical chronology, but I think at least partially, it misses the point of the naming of this shabbat.  To get a sense of the specialness of this day we need to look not at the particular events of the Exodus, but at the fuller picture of the Jewish year.

There are two shabbatot in the year when it was traditional for the rabbis or scholars of the community to give a sermon.   One was the shabbat before Pesach – Shabbat Hagadol,  and the other was the Shabbat before Yom Kippur – Shabbat Shuvah.  Each of these are the pivotal shabbatot of the Jewish calendar, for they appear exactly half a year apart at a boundary point of the year.  The spring month of Nisan is designated in the bible as the first month of the year, and the autumn month of Tishrei begins the counting of the new solar year.  Both therefore are counted as real new years in our calendar, and so both hold out the possibility of new beginnings.

In both new years there is a tradition of self examination, of clearing out the old disruptive and restraining elements in our lives, and of starting afresh.  Be it the emptying our of the crumbs in our pockets into running water during tashlich as we symbolically get rid of our sins at Rosh Hashanah, or the bedikat chametz – searching for the strategically placed bits of bread around the house with a candle and a feather on the night before seder night so as to be able to burn them the next day, we use the same symbolism to the same effect – we want to be able to start again unencumbered by our past worldly misdemeanours, we want to have a new chance, and the beginning of a year has the right sort of resonance for it.

In the month of Tishrei, along with the festivals of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the eight days of Sukkot our calendar has created  a special shabbat with its own haftarah, where God speaks to us asking us to return – Shabbat Shuvah.   It seems only proper that the month of Nisan should have a special shabbat too, echoing the relationship between God and Israel that will also be so prominent in the commemoration of the exodus from Egypt, but weighted slightly differently from the Autumn celebration.

Pesach is a festival that is dedicated to the particular experience of the Jews.  It records our liberation from slavery, the beginning of our journey towards peoplehood, the moment when we embarked on a course that would lead to our encountering God, accepting Covenant, recognising the unity of the Divine.  The Autumn Festivals celebrate not our particularity but our part in a universality – Rosh Hashanah is not the birthday of the Jewish people but of the World, Sukkot is the festival of recognition of the universality of God over all peoples.  Our Jewish tradition values both aspects – the particularity of the special covenantal relationship between the Jewish people and God, and the universality of God being God over all the world – divine creator of all people.

Just as we have two new years co-existing with each other in our calendar, so does our theology allow for two quite different identities – the particular one of the Jewish world and the universal one of the whole world.  The skill is in keeping the balance at all times between what may sometimes be conflicting priorities.  If we become too universalist then we lose our special identity, integrating and assimilating into our context until we become unrecognisable even to ourselves.  If we become too particularist then we block out the world around us, turn our backs on the real and important issues of our context, and deny the greatness and universality of our God by denying parts of God’s creation.  The prophets railed against this; the rabbis planned and manoeuvred to keep seemingly mutually incompatible ideas and circumstances alive and within the tradition.  It is a major triumph of Judaism that it is able to keep conflicting truths within the canon of our teachings and one we must never take for granted.

So both Nisan and Tishrei are new beginnings, yet each has different characteristic alongside the similarity.  Nisan is about the particular redemption of the Jewish people, Tishrei about the universal redemption of the world.  Yet each has a balancing component within it.  In Tishrei we mix into the liturgy a great deal of contemplative and reflective material, and we add a shabbat of particularity – shabbat Shuvah.  In Pesach we act out the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt as though we ourselves were there, but we mix into it an awareness of the pain and suffering of the wider world. We lessen our wine of joy by dropping some out as we recall the sufferings of the Egyptians for example, we shorten some of the Hallel psalms to temper our happiness at the crossing of the Red Sea because we remember the Egyptian pursuers who drowned there.  And we add to our commemoration of our redemption from slavery the oppression of others who are not yet released from their subjugation.  There is a tradition to add to both the symbols of Pesach and the liturgy of its services a wider remembrance of suffering and tyranny.  When I was growing up it was common to have a matzah of hope for Jews in Syria and the Soviet Union, to leave an extra chair and place setting for those who were unable to partake in a seder.  As time passed other things have been added to some sedarim – the orange placed on the seder place for example, to symbolise inclusion; and now the olive being added as a hope for peace for all peoples in the Middle East.

Balancing the universal and the particular, the creation of the whole world and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, is a Jewish life skill.  We are a separate people who are part of the one humanity created by God.  We have a particular covenant which designates particular obligations – mitzvot, with that God and we also know that while our convenant is binding on both parties, God also has other particular covenants with other peoples.  We care about our special identity and need to keep it active, and yet we also care about God’s wider world.  We balance the two parts of ourselves continually, the particularist and the universalist elements are both  legitimate expressions of Jewish thinking, and neither perspective can enable us without the other being somewhere in the equation.

So why Shabbat HaGadol?  It is, I think, the balance to Shabbat Shuvah, the day to remind ourselves as we frantically focus down on Pesach preparations that our world is larger and more complex than we might currently be tempted to think.  If our minds are full only of cleaning, cooking and shopping, we should allow space to consider the purpose of commemorating the festival at all. If we are preparing ourselves for the seder service, we should be looking outside the texts of Egyptian or Roman or Crusader persecution of the Jews and look for more modern examples of oppression and subjugation – both within the Jewish world and outside of it.  Shabbat Hagadol is a day to remember the rest of the world before we immerse ourselves in the particular Jewish experience of an exodus and a liberation that led to our formation as a people.

We are once again, at a new beginning.  It is 6 months since we stopped and really thought about the world and about our part within it, our sins of commission and our sins of omission.  This shabbat before Pesach, Shabbat HaGadol, calls to us now to ask – Have we changed in that time? Have  we responded to injustice or pain around us? Have we followed up the resolutions and vows we made during the Yamim Noraim?  Are we playing a part in Tikkun Olam, repairing the world so as to make it a more godly place?  Do we really care what is happening in our name in the world right now as Jews or middle-class professionals or citizens of Western countries?  Or will we just settle down in our homes to commemorate a historical event in a ritual way, opening the door to the outside only towards the end of our service, for a brief moment of recognition that we are not alone in the world, yearning for Elijah to come and signal the end?

Shabbat Hagadol – taking place in a new month which itself begins a new year refocuses us for a day away from our own historical reality to look at the surroundings in which our present reality takes place. It is truly a Great Sabbath.

Parashat Bemidbar:counting a community not calculating for the individual

 

We are in the time of the counting the omer – the days between Pesach and Shavuot – which give an awareness of, and a prominence to the link between Freedom (Pesach) and Responsibility (Shavuot).

Counting is something that has long roots in Jewish tradition- we count days and weeks of the omer, we count the days of penitence between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we count the years for the shemittah year and we count the multiples of shemittah years for the Jubilee year. The scribe will count the letters written in a Torah scroll in order to check that there are none added and none removed accidentally.  We even count the days till brit and the “white days” in the menstrual cycle.  But counting people has always been a problem in Jewish tradition – it is forbidden to take a direct numbering of the people of Israel and plague was often the result for those who tried. The Talmud tells us “Rabbi Eleazar said: Whosoever counts Israel, transgresses a [biblical] prohibition, as it is said: “Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured” [Hosea]. R. Nachman b. Isaac said: He would transgress two prohibitions, for it is written: ‘Which cannot be measured or numbered’.

Counting people can be said to take away the uniqueness of the individual, turning them simply into a number, dehumanizing the person. At the same time one could argue that as every number is different, the person is stripped not so much of individuality as of community. Yet community power resides within numbers. The development of the three patriarchs to the seventy souls who went down with Jacob to Egypt, to the over six hundred thousand at Sinai show how the community, the peoplehood, grew.  We still understand a community to be the number we can count on the fingers of two hands – a minyan is ten people. Numbers bind us into community and they bind us to our roots. The traditional way of counting a minyan is to recite verse 9 of psalm 28 – the ten words of which being “hoshia et amecha uvarech et nachalatecha ur’eim venasseim ad ha’olam – Save Your people, and bless Your inheritance and tend them, and carry them for ever. Another traditional way is to say “not one, not two, not three etc”

The fear of counting people and thus separating them from the community and possibly from their own humanity has long roots in Judaism – only God is really allowed to count us, only God is seen as having the ability to count without discounting so to speak. Yet the need to understand the community and to be able to count people into the community continues.  And the way that bible recommends is that we ask for a contribution from people and each contribution is counted.

It isn’t so odd as it sounds. Effectively the half shekel poll tax in order to support the Temple was both a fundraising activity and a way of measuring the numerical strength of the community. But I particularly resonate to the requirement that asks of people that in order for their presence to be recognised, they should offer some basic support to the community, and with this support they will be counted in.

The idea of being in a community by virtue of what you are offering to that community – not life changing amounts of money per se as the half shekel was a deliberately small amount designed to be possible for everyone to give, but a contribution nevertheless is the expression of an ancient idea that you are part of the community if you choose to offer something of yourself to it, if you partake of it, if you participate within it. You are part of the community if the community can count on you.

Listening to the emotive and emotional arguments about the wider community issue on the agenda today – the arguments about whether we should remain in the European Union or leave it and forge a new path– we hear a lot of words but can discern very little useful information to help frame our thoughts. One recent analysis of the words used most by the two campaigns show that Remain repeatedly use the three words “Jobs”, “Trade”, Businesses”, while the Leave campaign use “controlled” “NHS” and “Money”. It seems clear that the argument for economic stability sits with the Remain campaign, the argument for autonomy with the Leave. But as we move from Pesach to Shavuot, from Freedom to Responsibility, and into the book of Bemidbar, of the transitional neither-here-nor-there liminal space of the wilderness on whose other side will be the border with the promised land I find myself more and more cross that the language being used is of self-interest and self-regard, of “what can I not give to the community” and “what can I get from the community”.

Where is the rhetoric of commonality or of shared aims and aspirations? Where is the language of supporting each other, of helping each other to make a better world?

All I hear is calculation, and I am reminded of a quotation attributed to the architect Daniel Libeskind that “Life it is not just a series of calculations and a sum total of statistics, it’s about experience, it’s about participation, it is something more complex and more interesting than what is obvious.”

Life is best lived in relationship, in community with others, sometimes taking and sometimes giving but always associating with the other. The more I think of how we count a minyan – with the formula “not one, not two, not three”, the more I like the reminder that we are bound together, that while we may be individuals with our own self-interest and self-regard, what is most important about us is that we together can rise over our individualism in order to form something much bigger and much more nourishing for us all – we can  form community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lag B’omer. A moral tale for election day

Election Day will fall on Lag b’Omer –the thirty third day of the omer period where we count the days between Pesach and Shavuot, between Exodus and Revelation, between Freedom and Purpose.

The period of the counting of the omer is traditionally a quiet and introspective one, a time of semi mourning, although it is not clear for what we are mourning. One tradition says we are mourning the deaths of the students of Rabbi Akiva who died in a plague because they had not shown enough respect to each other. The plague ended on the 33rd day of the omer, and so this is a day taken out of the mourning period, a day for celebration and bonfires, before we go back into our counting the days till Shavuot. The story does not make sense – why would we mourn those who behaved so badly? Why do we go back into mourning after lag b’omer? But what does make sense is the idea of why God sent the plague – because these students of the celebrated rabbi were disrespectful of each other.

There is a long tradition in seeing the hand of the divine in natural disasters – from the ten plagues in Egypt onwards Jewish teachers have linked what insurers call ‘Acts of God’ to spiritual lessons about God’. Sometimes, as with the story trying to add meaning to the minor festival of Lag b’Omer there is a morality tale that we can understand. When people do not value each other and treat each other with respect, catastrophe can ensue. Indeed we also have the tradition that the fall of Jerusaelm was essentially down to sinat chinam, to the populace hating each other without reason.

But sometimes this tradition gets out of hand. This week after the terrible earthquake in Nepal with thousands of people dead and many thousands more struggling to survive in desperate circumstances, two rabbis chose to make a linkage. One, Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi posted approvingly on his Facebook page “All the idol worshiping places in Nepal are now destroyed”. And then The chief of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious court, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, told followers that the earthquake was meant as a lesson to the Jewish people to stop the conversions of people to Judaism done by Government paid rabbis within the IDF (and not under the control of his court)

I guess if we are going to have a habit of interpreting events in the natural world to give us moral lessons from the divinity we are always going to risk those voices who are so sure that their agenda is also God’s agenda come to the fore. And in the days of social media (a facebook page noch) these people will put their ideology across.

It is always difficult to be sure that we hear the authentic voice of God, but there is one sure fire test – if it is harmful to any people or peoples, all of whom our bible reminds us right at the start are created in the image of God, then we can be pretty sure this may be our viewpoint but it isn’t God’s.

We are counting the days between Pesach and Shavuot, we are in a strange period of quiet and reflection, we are readying ourselves for Revelation, for meeting with God, for learning what our purpose is to be. We will remember the students of Rabbi Akiva who died, either because they were disrespectful of each other or, in another tradition, because they were rebelling against the harsh Roman Government of the day and fell in a great battle. Maybe both – revolting against a government that did not care about them, and passing on the lack of care to their fellows.

The next few days and weeks will see the election promises recede into the past and real politik take over. But whatever the colour and shape of our new governing body, it behoves them to remember to treat all of us with respect, to remember that we are all valuable human beings and equal before the creator, and that while God may not intervene in a dramatic way to show Divine pleasure or displeasure, there will most certainly be another election and we, the masses of ordinary people, will be able to affirm or dislodge them.

Counting Down the Days: Between Pesach and Shavuot

Between Pesach and Shavuot we count. Every evening we tick off the day that has just passed, and we label it – adding up the weeks and the days of the omer, building up to the moment at Sinai when the covenant between God and the Israelites was signed, the moment when Judaism might be said to be created. It was at Sinai that the group of ex slaves who had descended from Jacob first got to understand something about God, and it was at Sinai that they began to realise that God required something from them that was more than the usual obeisance and paying off. An association was formed with obligations and expectations on both sides. Each party began to understand that the other was far more complex and ambiguous than they had appreciated until now, that much was hidden and even more was yet to emerge. At Sinai the God who had spoken to the ancestors, who had battled Pharaoh with plagues and signs and wonders, who had led them in the wilderness with a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire became something quite different – became of God of relationship and connection. And the disparate group of people with some shared stories and a collective present became united because of their experience there.

We don’t really know what happened at Sinai, some three months after the people had streamed out of Egypt into an uncertain freedom. But we know that the event shaped them and it continues to shape us – the revelation at Sinai, even while the people kept their distance from the mountain, made them the commanded people of God. We agreed to be God’s workers in the world and God agreed to be our God. Even now we struggle to make sense of that agreement, and we constantly nuance and finesse and philosophize in our struggle to seek its meaning. We take some control where we can, so we count the days from Pesach to Shavuot, waiting to get there and to experience it again – maybe this will be the year when we understand a little more.